"Curators and critics today use words like serious, important, ironic and significant to measure the merit of an art object. The trouble is that this very rarely has anything to do with aesthetics."
In his book, New Art, New Markets (Lund Humphries, 2018), Iain Robertson, Head of Art Business at Sotheby's Institute in London, examines three types of emerging markets for contemporary art (recently established, maturing and mature) and explores how value is constructed in non-Western contemporary art. In addition to the excerpt below, you can download a complementary chapter here.
It was at a colloquium convened by the Bahrain Ministry of Culture in a hotel off Berkeley Square in London just before Christmas in 2017 that I had an opportunity to ask a panel of art experts the following question: Can they name any collectors today who have good taste? The replies expressed incredulity. Good taste? What is good taste? Taste is relative; one person’s notion of tasteful is another’s idea of gaudy or perverse. The consensus was that the ownership of taste, good or bad, belonged to another era. Curators and critics today use words like serious, important, ironic and significant to measure the merit of an art object. The trouble is that this very rarely has anything to do with aesthetics. Beauty, proportion, elegance, skill and intelligence play less and less of a role in the final value of the work of art. At the risk of appearing quaint, there is much to be learnt today from nineteenth- century aestheticians like John Ruskin, who spoke (A Joy for Ever – 1914) of the prevalence of societal pomp and how an accumulation of gold and pictures would end in these treasures being scattered and blasted in national ruin. Perhaps that time is upon us; certainly, if the art market fails to heed the call for greater universal utility it will become irrelevant. Fashion, which mothballs the collections of previous generations in order that the shock of the new – often constructed in haste and in poor materials – may project a cultured1 rather than a cultivated self, has impugned artistic integrity. When a thing of beauty is no longer a joy forever, to corrupt the opening lines of Keats’ poem, its loveliness decreases and it will pass into nothingness. It is not a relative notion of beauty that has replaced a study of aesthetics; it is human pride. Beauty is still created, but today’s buyers prefer to pay for something else. Very often too – and here again Ruskin has something very pertinent to add – the sum of enjoyment is measured in quantity and insufficient attention is devoted to a single, wonderful thing for the sake of itself. It was then, and is more than ever today, a symbol of rampant consumerism. ‘For remember’, writes Ruskin, ‘the price of a picture by a living artist . . . represents, for the most part, the degree of desire which the rich people of the country have to possess it.’ The direction of this book is very firmly in opposition to this tendency. It discovers a new art in societies that reach back into the past and reject globalisation and, increasingly, nationalism in favour of deep-rooted, indigenous cultural traits. I will be looking at art that is inspired by an array of notions, from hereditary legitimacy and religious conviction to historical precedent. I encourage collectors to be discerning, and attempt to save them from the barrage of modern platitudes. In this book, the ideas of a global culture and an international artist are regarded as relics of clouded thinking. I have, therefore, decided to banish the term ‘emerging markets’. This terminology was, after all, a response to globalisation. A thought occurred to me as I looked out at the educated and sophisticated group that attended our colloquium in Mayfair. What have the British actually to teach their former dominions about cultivation, good conduct and civil behaviour? And I wondered, how much longer would this elegant group seek approval and take its cues from the West?
Featured image: detail of Wucius Wong's "Mountains and Rivers of the Mind" (2017)
To download this chapter in its entirety, click here.
Dr Iain Robertson is Head of Art Business Studies at Sotheby's Institute of Art. He was Exhibitions Officer, Royal Institute of British Architects; Cultural Officer, British Mission to Taiwan and Senior Lecturer in Arts Policy & Management at City University. His books include: Understanding International Art Markets and Management (2005); The Art Business (2008); A New Art from Emerging Markets (2011); Understanding Art Markets, Inside the World of Art and Business (2016); Art Business Today: 20 Key Topics (2016). He was art market editor of Art Market Report and is co-series editor of Handbooks in Art Business (SIA and Lund Humphries). He has written over one hundred articles in the arts and national press. He consults for banks in Asia and Europe and is visiting professor to Tsinghua and Lisbon Universities.